Energy costs, labor big concerns for tobacco growers

Energy costs, labor big concerns for tobacco growers

• Due to the mild winter, LP gas has actually gone down a little in price, but that will probably not last very long. • H-2A wages have gone up 40 cents an hour, and growers will have to increase efficiency to manage that.  

The cost of energy and labor are two of the biggest concerns for tobacco growers in 2012, says Brent Leggett of Nashville, N.C., the new president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina (TGANC).

Creative management of both could be the key to overcoming both.

“That’s especially true if you are using H-2A workers, as we are. H-2A wages have gone up 40 cents an hour, and you have to increase efficiency to manage that.”

Due to the mild winter, LP gas has actually gone down a little in price. “But you don’t know how long that is going to last,” he said.

Leggett uses LP gas as curing fuel for his flue-cured tobacco, but he is looking into converting to natural gas as a cost-savings measure.

Leggett grows tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton, soybeans, cucumbers and has two roadside strawberry farms.

Most of the tobacco farmers at the annual meeting were very much hoping the 2012 season brings better weather conditions than 2011 did.

“Once again the weather was not particularly supportive in 2011,” said Craig West, a Fremont, N.C., flue-cured grower who ended his term as TGANC president at the meeting. “In most locations the crop conditions were extremely dry and hot early in the season.”

But ultimately, 2011 will be remembered for Hurricane Irene, which subtracted about 150 million pounds of marketable production, according to final estimates, he says. “It likely impacted another 40 to 50 million pounds from stress and bruising.”

Some growers are getting out. “We have no real estimate as to how many (of our) peers will stop growing tobacco in 2012,” said West. “But the alarm bells are sounding and I wonder if the buyers are hearing. Once a grower exits, it is highly unlikely that family farm ever resumes tobacco production.”

Weather was hard to handle

The weather in the burley belt was nothing to write home about either, and production fell well short of projections. “The wet spring made it late, then it was very dry from the end of July though August,” said George Marks, president of The Burley Stabilization Corporation (BSC) of Springfield, Tenn. Fortunately, the curing season was excellent over most of the burley belt, and leaf quality was good, said Marks, a Clarksville, Tenn., farmer who attended the TGANC meeting. “It processed and packed well. I just wish there was more of it.”

BSC plans to buy tobacco in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Missouri this year for the first time after buying burley in Kentucky for the first time in 2010 and again in 2011, said officials of the cooperative.

Traditionally, BSC’s member states were Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. Farmers in those states will continue to participate.

Farmers shared a number of new production strategies over show season:

• There’s one sure way to minimize MH residues: Don’t use it. Randy Baldwin of Manchester, Ohio, began working Prime+ into his sucker control program three years ago because of buyer concern about maleic hydrazide (MH) residues.

Now, after a gradual conversion from 100 percent (MH), he now uses 100 percent Prime+ and has gotten good results.

“There were complaints about MH residues,” he says. “That is no problem now. We don’t have any. And I think we get better weight with Prime+ than we did with MH.”

He applies Prime+ by hand using drop nozzles.

Another new product has helped Baldwin with yield and quality. “We have used SoySoap for two years and gotten good results with it,” he says. “We use about a pint to the acre over the top at layby mixed with liquid fertilizer in the setter barrel.” A definite yield increase has resulted.

Baldwin has also noticed that his plants don’t wilt as bad when it gets hot since he started using SoySoap.

• Some flue-curing barns were being sold in February, though a good one cost in the $30,000 range.

“I see farmers renovating old barns. You may be able to do that for $4,000 to $5,000,” said Bob Pope of Long Tobacco Barn Company of Tarboro, N.C.

“But that leaves you curing in a barn with an old heat exchanger, worn boxes and leaks.” It may also run counter to industry quality concerns.

“It’s hard to consistently produce the quality that companies demand now if you are using old barns,” said Pope.

• Flue-cured and burley production will both be up.

Universal Leaf Tobacco Co. released the initial 2012 projection just before the TGANC meeting. It projected that U.S. flue-cured volume will rise this season to 500 million pounds. That would be up about a third from the 372 million pounds produced in hurricane-stricken 2011. American burley volume was projected at 187 million pounds, up seven percent from the 174 million pounds produced in 2011.

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